Many adults have been bullied at least once as children, and schools are working to raise awareness of bullying and prevent it in schools, but would you recognize bullying if it happened to you at work? Bullying in the workplace is a form of violence that is not unlike domestic violence in its dynamics. Occurring from the boardroom to the factory floor, workplace bullying is a serious problem that should be named and addressed.
What is Workplace Bullying?
Workplace bullying is repeated, unwanted, abusive behavior and mistreatment with the goal of controlling or harming others. It is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating and can involve spreading rumors, physical or verbal attacks, intentionally excluding someone from a group, or sabotaging another person’s work. When bullying happens online, it is referred to as cyberbullying.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, about 19% of the U.S. workforce reports being bullied. This translates to approximately 30 million workers who have been or are now being bullied at work. Another 19% of workers have witnessed bullying at work. Bullying of this magnitude has a tremendous impact on employees, employers, and the company’s bottom line.
The Impact of Workplace Bullying
Targets of bullying experience stress-related physical, emotional, and mental health problems. Depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue, suicidal thoughts, and headaches are all common effects of workplace bullying. Targets often withdraw at work and at home and tend to call in sick to escape the bullying or to recover from its effects.
Bullying also has a financial impact on the company. Bullies spend work time planning their attack and harassing their target, which results in lost productivity. Employers must also absorb the costs associated with high turnover and replacing workers when those involved in bullying are fired or quit because the problem has become unbearable.
Microaggressions in the Workplace
The Workplace Bullying Institute estimates that in a quarter of bullying cases, discrimination plays a role. Microaggressions are another type of workplace attack, and were originally defined as brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities—whether intentional or unintentional—that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward people of color. However, microaggressions can also be directed at people from other marginalized and minority groups, such as workers who are gay, elderly, or disabled. Taking the form of hidden, offensive, every day insults and demeaning messages, microaggressions may be part of the arsenal of a workplace bully and may go undetected by others.
When offending individuals are confronted with their microaggressions and demeaning behaviors, they usually believe that the target has overreacted or is being overly sensitive and/or petty. Usually others consider microaggressions to be minor and they attempt to minimize the impact of their statements. Targets of microaggressions are often encouraged to “not waste time or effort on it” or “to let it go.”
Like workplace bullying, microaggressions create a hostile and invalidating climate for targets, sap their spiritual and psychic energies, and their cumulative nature can result in depression, frustration, anger, rage, loss of self esteem, and anxiety.
Combating Workplace Bullying
Although workplace bullying is four times more common than sexual harassment or racial discrimination on the job, there are currently no laws against workplace bullying. While it is your employer’s responsibility to resolve the issue, workplace bullying often continues because the employer creates or permits a workplace culture or environment where bullying is tolerated or even encouraged, and it therefore remains difficult to confront.
Similar to those who make microaggressions, workplace bullies will deny that they are doing anything wrong and may label you as a whiner who needs to toughen up, so making an emotional appeal usually won’t work. Instead, present your employer with an objective summary of the financial cost of the bully’s behavior to the company.
If conditions don’t improve, some experts recommend that you put your own health and wellbeing first and begin to “plan your escape” by researching your legal options and looking for another job. Bullying can destroy a person’s career and have a detrimental effect on their ability to earn a living, not to mention the psychological, spiritual, and physical damage that can occur. Workplace bullying is a serious issue that should never be minimized.
Sue, D.W.; Capodilupo, C.M.; Torino, G.C.; Bucceri, J.M.; Holder, A.M.; Nadal, K.L.; & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286
Workplace Bullying Institute (2017). 2017 WBI U.S. Survey: National Prevalence, 60.3 Million Workers Affected by Workplace Bullying. Retrieved on August 23, 2017 from http://www.workplacebullying.org/2017-prevalence/
Dr. Peggy Mitchell Clarke is a clinical psychologist and retired psychology professor who has lived in Denver, Colorado for almost two decades. In the aftermath of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, Dr. Clarke was instrumental in developing and facilitating active shooter response and violence prevention training for all faculty and staff at Community College of Aurora (CCA). Dr. Clarke currently serves on CCA’s Behavioral Intervention Team and consults in the areas of mental health, classroom management, and safety.